A Howard County judge sent Morgan Lane Arnold back to jail from a juvenile facility Monday, ruling that the 16-year-old should be tried as an adult on charges she plotted with her boyfriend to kill her father.
Circuit Judge William Tucker told a full courtroom that Arnold, accused of helping plan the May 2013 killing of her father, well-known businessman and blogger Dennis Lane, needs intensive mental health treatment. There's no guarantee she would get it in the five years she might spend in the juvenile system if found guilty, Tucker said.
Arnold was a few months shy of her 15th birthday when her then-boyfriend, Jason Bulmer, entered Lane's Ellicott City home in the early morning through a basement door Arnold had left unlocked and fatally stabbed him.
Bulmer, whose attorneys described him as intellectually limited, was sentenced to 30 years in prison last month after pleading guilty to first-degree murder.
If her case were sent to juvenile court, Arnold could be released by age 21. Tried as an adult, she faces possibility of life in prison on charges of first-degree murder and other counts.
"If she's not treated properly and has to be released in five years, that is not in the best interest of society," Tucker said.
After his ruling, Arnold's attorney Joseph Murtha attempted to enter a plea that Arnold is not criminally responsible for her actions because of her mental state. Tucker rejected it, ruling that the plea was not filed in a timely fashion.
In three sessions of testimony over the past two weeks, Arnold read books and had stuffed toy animals, including a turtle and a rabbit, with her in the courtroom as her attorneys sought to have her case moved to juvenile court. Her lawyers argued she suffers from profound mental illness — she has been diagnosed with conditions including Asperger's, attention-deficit disorder, anxiety and depression — and said she has the emotional capacity of a child. Defense witnesses portrayed her as sickly and childlike.
But prosecutors said Arnold thrived on violent fantasy and wanted to kill people who upset her, and called the stuffed toy animals props. Arnold's lawyers alleged Bulmer manipulated her, but prosecutors said electronic messages between the couple showed she was the one in control of the relationship.
On Monday, a black-and-white stuffed toy pony lay on its side on the defense table in front of Arnold, who wore glittery flat shoes and white socks pulled up over her calves. She read a book of anime nearly the entire time Tucker spoke.
"She has been totally disinterested in these proceedings," said Tucker, a former juvenile court master and former chief of the county state's attorney's juvenile division. He noted Arnold had read from at least two books and a magazine during her hearing. "And now she has a different book."
Arnold, who had been held at the Waxter Children's Center in Laurel while the effort to transfer her case was pending, will now return to the Howard County Detention Center.
Murtha called the ruling disappointing.
"I've spent enough time with Morgan Arnold to believe she's a child who has profound mental health problems, who will not fare well in the adult penal system if she's found guilty," Murtha said.
Her mother, Cindi Arnold, said her daughter read during the court hearings because she has autism, not because she is callous.
"She is unable to engage in the way a normal person would," she said. "She is unable to identify more than three or four feelings. That's why we want the therapy that the juvenile system could've provided."
Wayne Kirwan, spokesman for the Howard County state's attorney's office, said prosecutors would have no comment because the murder case is pending.
Jason Tashea, juvenile justice policy director for Advocates for Children & Youth, declined to speak about the Arnold case specifically, but said the adult criminal justice system is focused on punishment, while the juvenile system is intended to rehabilitate.
"Generally speaking, the adult justice system is not structured in a way that meets kids' developmental needs," he said. "Brain development and the impacts of incarceration look much different at 16 than they do at age 36."
The state's Department of Juvenile Services had recommended that Arnold be tried as an adult, but mental health providers who evaluated her and testified in the case said she did not exhibit violent behavior and believed her case should go to the juvenile system. One psychologist said she had the emotional capacity of someone between the ages of 9 and 12.
That psychologist also said Arnold felt her father was emotionally abusive, but did not render an opinion on whether such abuse had occurred. Neither side claimed that Arnold was physically or sexually abused.
Mental health professionals who evaluated her said Arnold didn't show remorse after her father's death, and said she had no memory of the killing. Prosecutors had said her father begged her to call 911 after he was stabbed and she refused. A psychiatrist and a psychologist told the court Arnold would need intense treatment before she could begin to process her emotions enough to show remorse.
Speaking Monday, Tucker said he believes Arnold poses a threat to public safety. Investigators say the couple also planned to kill Lane's partner, Denise Geiger. In recorded conversations the teen had with her mother played by prosecutors in court, Morgan Arnold said she wished Geiger also had been killed.
"Who's to say that Ms. Arnold will not get upset with someone else ... and convince a new boyfriend, or whoever, to kill that person?" Tucker said.
Before issuing his decision, he read aloud an entry from Arnold's diary.
"Today, all I could hear was the sound of bones breaking and flesh tearing," the girl wrote on April 26, 2013, less than a month before her father was killed. "It's insane and it's sick that I like those sounds."
She wanted her father dead, and she wanted him to suffer, she wrote.
It concluded: "My mind is a dark abyss that no one would ever want to see into."